Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Amazing Mind of Alice Makin

Here is a book that is very difficult to describe or slot into a genre or age group. The plot reminded me of David Almond and Skellig and Michelle Magorian and Goodnight Mr Tom.

The publisher and other reviewers suggest this is a book for middle Primary but the violence of the scenes between Alice and her step father along with a harrowing scene towards the end of this novel have left me thinking it is better suited as a Senior Primary novel or perhaps Junior High School. In fact this book was listed for our NSW School Magazine Bookshelf in 2009 and put in the senior primary section.

Alice is a twelve year old girl living in London just after World War II. Her neighborhood is very poor and has been badly damaged by the bombing. Alice lives in a run down apartment building with her mum and step dad. Living upstairs is her best friend Reggie and his ‘Grandad’. Reggie is an orphan and he has a marked stutter which makes his the victim of relentless bullying and ridicule. Reggie does not seem to mind this awful treatment but Alice finds it unbearable and regularly tries to rescue her friend especially from the Spicers. “The Spicers are as broad as they are tall. If they joined Norman’s army they’d be the tanks. Push and shove. Tight eyes. Tight lips. Crew cuts. Even their hair looks dangerous.”

Alice has a special ability. When she imagines something it sometimes comes true. In one memorable scene The Spicers are attacking a gum machine. “I stare at them, thinking all sorts of nasty thoughts… imagining how good it would be if they got caught or ended up with more gum than they knew what to do with.” It is this latter wish that is fulfilled with hilarious consequences as gum spews out of the machine tying the Spicers into a sticky mess.

Aside from these funny incidents (there is another wonderful one involving fireworks and bonfires) there are some very disturbing parts to this story. For reasons that are not really explained Alice’s step dad vehemently hates her. He beats her, bullies her, forbids her to see Reggie and constantly leaves her terrified. Her mum is distant and seems preoccupied. The family are living in poverty. Alice has a great deal to handle including a revelation from her mum that leaves her reeling in shock.

On her thirteenth birthday Alice decides to go to the library. This is a delightful scene. “Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday dear Alice, Happy Birthday to me. Rows of books ‘shush’ me. .. There’s a place for singing and a place for not singing. I like it in the library. I can get lost in books and forget about every thing else for a while… Mrs Bentley is the librarian. I like her because you know where you are with her. She’s always the same. Her face is always the same. She always dresses the same. I wonder if she has a spare same face and several spare sets of the same clothes.”

On the plus side this book provides a good insight into post war London, the characters are well drawn, the friendships are special and the writing is quite poetic but this is not a book for a very sensitive reader. If you were disturbed by the violence in Goodnight Mr Tom then you will know what I mean. It is interesting that I have just looked a little more closely at the cover of my copy and have discovered that Michelle Magorian herself has endorsed this book.

Look for The Amazing Mind of Alice Makin. It is an important story, set during the post war period of history and it is a book that will remain in your mind for a long time after you have finished reading it.

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